Burning Memory 

I suppose one of the more interesting things about being depressed about life and your future is that you spend an awful lot of time thinking about the past. In essence, when you're not trying to numb yourself to the unbidden thoughts that are causing you your present anguish, you're spending much of your mental life in the past and reviewing how things went and thinking about how you ended up the way you did. You past becomes a puzzle in where you try to find the answer of "now."

Of course, you would naturally think that the painful thoughts of the present come from painful memories of the past, but this is not necessarily true. In fact, you can form fairly negative thoughts about past positive experiences by merely saying to yourself (in one emotional form or another), "just look at what I've achieved. It is such a shame I'll never get there again, will never have a positive experience like it." Sometimes, in your better moments, you can recognize those thoughts as irrational and wrong. Seen through the filter of depression, everything tends to turn into those bitter cold shades of blue.

Sometimes though, if you're being perfectly honest with yourself, you will remember positive moments in your life and will be absolutely correct if you said that those moments will never happen again. Yet, the mistake here is thinking about the "past specific" and turning it into the "future general." You would be right if you said that one specific moment of happiness in the past won't happen again, but that doesn't mean that there won't be happy moments like it in the future. that other happy moments that spring from places you didn't or couldn't consider at the time.

With all this is in mind, I would like to visit one of these positive moments. I will try not to make too many judgments about it. I just want to present it as I remember it.

- - - - - - -

My high school graduation was an awkward affair. I assume that most students are excited and happy to graduate, if only to finally be out of the various personal hells high school seems to create. I definitely was looking forward to high school being over, but unlike most students, I certainly wasn't excited. In fact, I was a bit anxious and depressed. I hated almost every aspect of school, and the ritual of the graduation ceremony was just one more thing about high school that I didn't want to be a part of. So while all of those other students seemed happy to parade before their parents and extended family, I was glum and depressed.

I sat rather forlornly in a cheap plastic chair, in a graduation gown that felt ridiculous to wear, on the football field with the rest of the graduating class. I looked miserably towards the bleachers where the parents and most of the teachers sat and tried not to worry about the future.

I had spent much of high school being the outsider, the weirdo, the loner, or whatever the modern trope is of the quiet student who looks glum and reads books all day. Instead of socializing with some group of friends, I sat in the hallway or library reading some book or another counting the minutes until I could go home. I guess was that kind of student until the bitter end.

By contrast, the valedictorian spent much of her speech talking about how great high school was, but as far as I could see, she only spoke for herself or a few friends. Being the studious and devoted daughter of the principal, I imagine her belief that high school was "the greatest part of our young lives" was somewhat natural conclusion for her to make, even if the rest of us were wondering what the hell she was talking about.

But eventually, the ceremony was over, and I was left to consider what to do with my life. College appeared to be out of the question since money was always an issue. I went home and thought.

But, in the most improbable move of my life, I shortly found myself traveling in a beaten up R.V. with people my own age, going to different towns and giving talks and presentations about World Peace. Actually, most of the so-called talks and presentations were us singing songs in public and doing small community service projects for a day or two. We would spend a week or two in a town before moving on to the next one. I spent nearly two years doing this.

I had some natural skills at organization, and although I intensely hated telling people what to do, these "kids" seemed to rely on me in the practical areas of daily life. They needed someone to figure when dinner was or where it was coming from so they had the time to focus on being spiritual.

Most of us were the children of hippie parents, and I suppose I was as well, although to a smaller extent. My mother was definitely a product of her generation, the late sixties and early seventies, but poverty and the various emergencies of her young life meant that she was more grounded that the stereotypical hippie. She wasn't the spoiled flower child who disguised her consumerism and self centered interests as high minded cultural and spiritual change. She belonged more to the genuinely spiritual and idealistic wing of the hippies who actually tried to change the world for the better, who believed that the world was, at some point, really going change for the better, and that it was partly her job to change it. Poverty can be a kind of purifying fire that burns way the silliness of "theories" to leave behind the pure gold of practicality.

This was one thing that poverty gave me as well: an ability to practically assess a situation and determine what might be the best thing that needs to happen. Whether that thing might be dinner, might be a time table for showers, or a day off to recharge our batteries.

There is much about this period of my life that I probably will never be able to adequately put into words. It was life times ten, life speeded up. Although we often made mistakes, both personally and as a larger group, I probably learned more about myself in that period than I ever did during my time in middle and high school.

So, with all that as background, here is the memory that I would to recall: I am on this "team" of fellow "kids." The oldest of us is in our early twenties, the youngest is just 18. We have already done quite a bit of traveling. Most of our time was spent in the suburban farm areas of our state, the wet forests and farmland ares I grew up in. But, we had just finished a week living in an artist community, a town of nearly 500 people in the extreme eastern, desert part of the state. It could have been a different country altogether as far as I felt. The familiar tall fir trees and various sloping hills that were often buried in fog and clouds had long given way to the rolling brown and yellow hills and sage covered stark plateaus of the desert.

Cramped in an old R.V., an R.V. old enough to still have the factory original 8-track cassette player in the dash, we drove to our next destination somewhere further along the high desert highway we were on. It was dark and very late, and we had already been on the road for a couple of hours. Some of my friends had individually succumbed to sleep as the hours grew later and the night longer. Someone was snoring in the bunk above the the drivers seat, the attic as it was called. The driver stared tiredly at the monotonous road stripes as they flashed in the headlights and quickly passed by the windshield.

One of my friends, someone to whom I was closer (emotionally) than the others, was reading a book at the breakfast nook at the back of the van. Much like a circular booth in a restaurant, the breakfast nook consisted of a cushioned bench seat that swept around a hard table anchored to the floor by a long metal pole. Behind the seat was the large rear windshield that framed his head against the dark. My friend sat in the middle of the back at this table, and I sat listened quietly to whispered reading.

As I gazed out of the window into the darkness, I saw what I imagined to be the last gleam of the setting sun. It took several moments for me to realize that the sun did not set in the north. I sat up intense interest and tried to get a better look out of the side window. I noticed several things all at once: the driver, my friend, the darkness, the road. But above all of these things, I began to take greater notice of the fact that there was nearly no-one else on the road. I had initially assumed that the absence of vehicles was because we were in a relatively remote part of the state. This was not a main highway and towns were few and far between. But I began to suspect the lack of other cars was due to another reason. I scanned the light along the top of the dark silhouetted hills trying to make out the silhouetted tree line at top.

It was then I saw that the light was not behind the trees, but coming from them. The trees were on fire. The fire appeared to be some distance away, perhaps twenty or thirty miles, but the flames, and now some of the trees, were clearly visible. I pointed this out to my friends who were awake.

We then took note of the red moon. The moon was the reddest I had ever seen in life then or since, perhaps due to the all of the smoke in the air. The driver turned on the radio to try and get a station. He managed to tune in one of the country stations that we could occasionally get to play for just a handful of minutes before drifting back into static. A news bulletin solved the mystery of no other vehicles on the road; shortly after we had begun our trip that afternoon, the state had closed the highway. No further traffic was allowed in either direction.

With the illusion of immortality clouding our young minds as it does most youth, we decided to pull over and watch the flames as they grew brighter against the deepening dark. The distance, one we thought considerable, made it feel safe to do so.

The fire took on an important and spiritual meaning that we all struggled to apprehend individually. Our chatter about the fire slowly died out and the excitement of this event was somewhat transformed into a stilled awe as we gazed at the flames. Our lives, in a sense, had just begun. The newness of our lives seemed connected to the fire somehow. We shared some unexplained kinship.

The destruction was both terrible and awesome to see, yet beautiful under the reddening moon. When I looked closely, I discerned tall trees, trees which I assumed had already lived for decades, explode in a sudden bloom of yellow and red. The sap inside the trunk had boiled until, like a piece of pop-corn, the entire tree burst in sudden brief intensity, the light from the explosion quickly fading back into and among the other yellows.

Silently, we stared at the forest fire, taking in the stunning vision for several long and quiet minutes. Then, somehow chastened in spirit, we climbed back aboard the R.V. to think about all we had seen and puzzle out the spiritual mystery that seemed to presented before us.

- - - - - - -

This memory of the trip through the darkness, the forest fire, and the exploding tree is what I wanted to examine again. There is still a mystery in there, both beautiful and frightening to look at, but of course, less important, less intense now that eighteen years has passed. I cannot explain the connection that we felt, but I can only affirm that we - - or rather, I, perhaps- - felt it.

There was a power in that may remain out of reach forever. In some ways, the forest fire I witnessed then makes me want to be a better person, a person who actively lives his life rather than let life flow over him like a flowing stream, pushing him around until he winds up in some strange puddle, slowly evaporating in an afternoon sun. In some ways, I do not want to figure out the mystery of the fire at all. I want to let it burn like the fire, work in the darkness, and feel that strange magic that I felt back then, when the world seemed to hold the promise of new discoveries, the chance for a life well lived and beautifully felt for decades to come.

26 January 2009
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